Conceptualising a Feminist Internet-II

Tech-enabled sexuality for persons with disabilities

Lawyer and disability rights activist Amba Salelkar spoke about technology beyond the Internet. She said that the idea of how sex is supposed to happen is entirely ableist – two ‘beautiful’ people at the peak of their physical and mental health, accidentally (yet fittingly) coming together in cosmic symmetry and attaining simultaneous spontaneous orgasms. For the disabled, there is a lack of privacy due to the presence of caregivers, often a lack of confidence due to body image issues, lack of knowledge and discussion on sex-positive issues, and also a limited social circle due to the lack of mobility or other impairments. Persons with disabilities are typically treated in an infantalising manner or viewed as asexual beings. Consequently, sexuality is a worrisome aspect where a correlation is made between psychosocial disabilities and hypersexuality. YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities defines sexuality as “not just sexual activity, but also the acknowledgement of feelings, ways of relating to self and others, self-esteem, gender identification, and sexual orientation. Individuals with intellectual disabilities/ developmental disabilities share the need to love and be loved, and as consenting adults to establish relationships with person of their choice and to express their sexuality so long as they are not injuring themselves or others”.

Technology has helped develop enabling coping mechanisms for the disabled: for instance, online pornography and erotica are sometimes the only privately available access to sexual arousal. Sex toys and assistive devices, medication, communication devices, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices as well as online dating services and informed consent information allow for different kinds of enabling access. Disabling attitudes such as the legal ban on sex toys in India need to be challenged. While men with disabilities continue to get married by waiving dowry and offering monetary compensation, women with disabilities rarely find partners due to considerations of eugenics, and are at risk of routine sexual abuse and sterilisation. Currently, the mainstream disability rights movement doesn’t speak about sexual rights. Medical procedures that affect sexual ability are often carried out without proper consent due to assumptions about sexuality of the disabled. There is a need to move away from a medical model to a societal model. In the former, disability is located in the individual who needs to be cured; in the latter, it is recognised that disability emerges from a type of social organisation that denies access to some persons and enables others.

Privacy and anonymity

During group discussions, issues of privacy, anonymity and their connection to safety came up in a number of different contexts. The risk of disclosure of personal information of women, who could face offline violence for their online behaviour and expression, is a barrier to free and safe use of the Internet. On the other side of the anonymity issue is the question of privacy. That Internet also becomes a site for violence against women when abusive male ex-partners publish photographs, addresses, or other information. The question of how to ensure free and safe access to the Internet brought forth a few suggestions, including the idea of “responsible anonymity” with structural safeguards to protect women’s access and a sense of digital safety, and a framework of informed consent, where sexual content can only be published with the consent of the people associated with it.

The Internet allows LGBTQ persons to find partners, community and information while maintaining a degree of anonymity. It also exposes them to potential threats such as extortion and unwanted attention. There are numerous instances of imposters meeting LGBTQ persons in the real world for dates, while their intent is to blackmail closeted LGBTQ individuals with making their sexual identities public.

It is not enough to merely ‘secure’ the Internet through a framework of consent, anonymity or privacy, because in an information age none of these parameters function in the classical sense. There is often an illusion of anonymity or consent. A feminist Internet would involve working to change the conditions of access, use, and impact that women and stigmatised groups have on the Internet – from protectionist to destigmatising. The problem with protectionism is also that it assumes it knows what it protects.

Bridging the digital divide

While pushing for access to the Internet as a source of knowledge and information, it is important to note that pitching the “enlightened Internet” to “ignorant rural women” can repeat the epistemic violence of colonialism. A feminist Internet would need to actively work towards circulating knowledge from the suppressed cultures and the language of sexuality from the standpoint of the women it seeks to include.
Online pornography and censorship

Bishakha Datta brought up the problem of censorship and online pornography, and the issues with government and some organisations taking an unscientific moral policing position that violence against women is caused by pornography. Women’s groups have been opposing a blanket ban on online pornography as it was likely to block out information on sexuality and sexual expression. There is lack of evidence establishing a causal link between online porn and violence against women. A blanket ban on porn would also mean a violence of the rights to free speech and Internet freedom. However, the government has pushed a non-feminist stand against pornography, which purports to be pro-family. Additionally, the government appears to be targeting those who consumed online pornography rather than those who circulated or published it.

If the objective of banning pornography is to reduce violence against women, then instead of implementing a quick-fix blanket ‘solution’, a lot more work needs to be done – starting with understanding the conditions that enable a woman’s consent to be violated in the first place. The fight against pornography is also ridiculous and hypocritical; while people perceive a problem with pornography, they dismiss or ignore the effects of overall sexualisation and objectification of women in public culture. Is it actual liberation for women or just a means of revenue generation that is based on selling normative and destructive ideas that enrol men as sexual subjects and women as sexual objects?

It might be helpful to dissociate consensual and exhibitionist pornography from non-consensual representations, where the latter is considered a form of sexual assault. This would reintroduce the possibility of sex-positive feminist pornography based on consent and women’s right to sexual expression. In the same vein that distinguishes consensual sex from rape, factoring in consent in online pornography would also be an important intervention given the inclination to club all nudity under pornography regardless of the manner and purpose in which it was made.
Gendered abuse online

Anonymity makes it possible for women to freely voice their views online, but anonymity also provides room for hostile policing to occur and thrive. It is a reflection of how the Internet mirrors other public spaces, where speech by a woman is considered transgression and an invitation to be abused irrespective of the content of the speech. “Don’t Let it Stand”, a study on online gendered abuse conducted by the Internet Democracy Project in 2012 revealed that the topics that seemed to attract the most verbal abuse for women were criticism of Narendra Modi and talking about sex or sexuality. The contents of the abuse typically targeted their bodies, sexuality and the sex lives of their family members. It rarely translated into offline abuse, but it was intended – as in other spaces – primarily to silence women. The responses to abuse varied from the use of humour, to fighting back, to ignoring the abuser, and often simply going offline.

The meeting raised a number of questions, generated new ideas and built upon existing ones. We have not yet convincingly and suitably answered all the questions raised, the “Connect Your Rights” meeting in Chennai provided a platform to start this process and laid the foundation to work towards building a conceptual framework for a feminist Internet. For us, the most striking aspect of a feminist Internet would be free, non-oppressive and enabling exchange of information, ideas, and interaction with the community. Incidentally, that is exactly how the meeting was.